Behavior Design,
Game Design,

Article 3: The Russian Dolls Strategy For Change

September 26, 2017

What can Russian dolls possibly have to do with changing the world?

It’s a metaphor that I borrowed from a book called “The Big Leap” by PhD psychologist Gay Hendricks. He used the metaphor of “Russian dolls” to describe the process of digging deeper into oneself, and into the subliminal drivers that guide the real reasons we do things. A bit like the process of asking “Why . . . why . . . why?” To peel away the layers of the onion of our life decisions, or to open up theRussian dolls of our inner selves to find the little one that sits in the very core.

As I was recently finishing up my video course “Save the World with Gamification”, I was having to answer the question of what gamification was quite often. Lots of people haven’t ever heard of the word, or they didn’t really understand what it was. Even the gamification experts (in my opinion) struggle to explain why gamification is useful.

Hendrick’s metaphor for digging deeper into the self, seemed to also fit beautifully for digging into our strategy for how we change the world.

I started to explain gamification as a kind of “motivational wrapping” we can apply to human behavior.

If we want humans to do a thing, (like compost more, drive less, or eat less meat) we can go about the process of trying to motivate people in an infinite number of ways. But they don’t all work. Many of the ways we try and change the world totally fail to motivate people to do the thing we want them to do.

The other reality is that we can try and motivate people to do things in way that totally *effing nails it, and gets lots of people to do thing we want them to.
We don’t need to bash our head against a brick wall. We can design a program that gets people to increase their composting rates by 76%, that gets people to exercise 17% more, that cuts pollution levels by 43%.

It’s actually pretty doable if you utilize the right principles.

Gamification is big piece of the puzzle for supercharging human motivation. In our world of social change, we are motivating people to do more good things, and gamification can help us to help them.

Russian doll 1: Data

But why do we need people to change their behavior? It’s to make real and measurable change on the data we want to shift.

The core of our world-changing strategy must be centered around the data on our cause. This is the central Russian doll.

Example: if you want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the transportation sector, you will get a feel for the actions that people need to make by looking into the data.


Russian doll 2: Behavior change

Once you intimately understand the data about what you want to change, then you can add the next layer. You wrap your data strategy with your second Russian doll: behavior change. This doll represents the behaviors you need people to do in order to shift the numbers.

Example: You can see that getting people to adopt the behavior of purchasing an electric vehicle instead of a gasoline-powered car is a big step to reaching your measurable goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Thispurchasing action is your specific behavior that wraps the data you want to shift.


Russian doll 3: Gamification 

Now that you’ve isolated the specific behavior you need people to make, you can wrap this behavior in an array of gamification techniques.

Gamification isn’t designing games for people to play. Gamification is designed to enhance human motivation to make better behaviors.

Some gamification techniques you might use to encourage electric vehicle purchase could be:

Disclosure of data about the carbon emissions or fuel cost differences at the point of sale of the vehicle.

Color coding of cars by their carbon dioxide emissions.

> Adding a star rating to cars based on their carbon emissions.

Social proof: Show images or testimonials of people enjoying their electric cars. Use phrases like “everyone is getting electric cars now”.

> Create images showing the power of comparison in a simple infographic of the scale of carbon dioxide/price/air pollution for an electric vs a gasoline car.

> Run a pledge through an organisation such as a school, gym or workplace to get people to psychologically commit to shifting to an electric vehicle when it is time for them to buy a new car.

Check out my video course “Save the World with Gamification” for a suite of 15 different gamifications techniques you can apply to social and environmental change causes.

This makes three Russian dolls, all setup in order.  We need to get the first three Russian dolls in place before adding new ideas or initiatives to our strategy.


Russian doll 4: Outreach

Now it’s time for your next layer. Your fourth Russian doll consists of marketing, outreach, publicity, and education – all actions involved with promotion.

When we are incisively clear about the purpose of our promotional efforts, we realize we are creating a funnel that brings people into the cause, with the sole purpose of manifesting a specific behavior change. 

The purpose of the behavior change is to make a measurable change in the data.

A marketing and outreach plan that is designed with the sole agenda of manifesting a behavior change will take a very different form to one that is only trying to spread an idea or promote a product.

Watch my most recent webinar on this here.

Want to hold a movie documentary night about something you care about? Don’t just hold one because you think it’s fun. Learn the toolkit of behavioral psychology and use it to see how to you can use a movie night as a purposeful action in order to create a behavior that shifts the numbers on your cause.


Russian doll 5: technology

Once you’ve got your first four dolls in place, now you can add the fifth doll of technology to wrap the other dolls. You can carefully consider what technology you need in order to make the other four dolls do their job. There’s no need to rush into making an app because you thought that making an app was a cool idea, or you just want to write some code because that’s all you know how to do.

Your technology exists to help you get more people into your social-change funnel and successfully out the other side. The more people you can get into your funnel, the more you will change the world. If you’re into tech, check out my other articles on gamifying smart cities and hardware hacking for the planet.

Each Russian doll wraps strategy around the next doll:

Doll 1: Data – Why? To make real change happen.

Doll 2: Behavior Change – Why? To get people to do behaviors that affect the numbers.

Doll 3: Gamification – Why? To enhance people’s motivation.

Doll 4: Outreach – Why? To grow the movement of people doing the behaviors.

Doll 5: Technology – Why? To facilitate the whole process for many people.


Do or do not do. There is no try.

The problem that I see in the social change movement is that people take one Russian doll out of the set and only focus on this one layer. By itself, this approach just won’t shift your cause. You can’t only focus on education, or only focus on technology. Gamification techniques without real world data at the core of their intention can fall flat. You gotta put them all together in a funnel.

I see these mistakes all the time

1. Marketing or educational projects that doesn’t lead to a behavior change. (Youtube channels, books, documentaries).

2. Events, conferences and festivals that aren’t designed around achieving specific measurable change. (People go to the event, get jazzed up about the cause, then go back to the same life).

4. Technology projects that don’t have a well planned change process or ability to impact the data. (Creating apps, APIs, hackathons that seem cool but don’t really enact the change desired).

5. Committees and groups that meet often and discuss issues without making a concrete plan to the change the issues.(Committee meets, talks about the thing, does some paperwork, never gets around to changing anything). More of this in my two lenses article.

5. People who do focus on data, but don’t get it popularized or translated into behaviors in order to make change happen.(Scientists and engineers understand their issue intimately, don’t ever build a following or get their field to reach mainstream appeal).


The future for epic change is real

There is no need to languish in the badlands of ineffective activism or spend your life frustrated at the ills of the world.

Gamification partnered with real world data has been proven in many studies to yield big results, but it has not been implemented in a big way yet. That means there is massive opportunity to do epic things.

I am insanely excited about what we can do when we bringmeasurement to the core of the creative process. When we have the tools in the toolkit for change, we really can change the world. No matter what a cliche it has become, changing the world is a friggin awesome way to spend your life – and this stuff really works.  

But you gotta get your dolls in order, y’now what I’m sayin’?


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Join us in the Facebook group to leave your comments and ideas about this article. I’d love to hear from you!

Check out the other articles in the 21 Days of Gamification series.

-> Disclosure: Why public data is the secret solution we need more of

-> Five easy low-tech gamification techniques you can use to save the earth

-> How to find your creative genius zone 

-> Why you should be using leaderboards

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